SALT LAKE CITY — As a person who lives and owns businesses downtown, Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller urged state lawmakers Monday to support the Housing and Homeless Reform Initiative, a plan to spread shelters and services across the Wasatch Front and solve problems at the Road Home.

"We have an urgent, moral responsibility to address this problem," said Miller, co-chairwoman of Salt Lake City's Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission, which spent a year studying the location of current service providers.

Although Salt Lake County's and Salt Lake City's $27 million request to the Utah Legislature has been more than a year in the making, the issue took on new urgency Monday after an altercation near the city's largest shelter Saturday night that was followed by an officer-involved shooting of a 17-year-old boy and a large-scale disturbance on Rio Grande Street.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said the Road Home's community shelter, built for 300 people, houses more than 1,000 people any given night.

"That creates a lot of challenges in our city, some that you have been witnessing, probably, and maybe you don't know about. This legislation would be hugely helpful to us. We are in need of some funding to break up this population and create smaller resource centers to provide services," Biskupski said, addressing the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Standing Committee.

Breaking up the large concentration of homeless people in the state's largest emergency shelter would also curb criminal activity, she said.

"We know that drug dealers are coming in and infiltrating this very large population and preying upon them to sell drugs and preying upon them to buy drugs, and it’s creating a whole other level of sub-issues in the city. If we could get your support and some funding to break ground or to look at our current facilities in a different way than we do today, I am confident that it would have a significant impact on the criminal activity that is happening in that neighborhood where the Road Home is," Biskupski said.

While HB436, sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, envisions funding for shelters and services, the legislation calls for a "statewide perspective" in addressing homelessness.

"It cannot be just about placing people in shelters. There has to be services and helping them with job skills, living skills, so on and so forth to help them become more self-sufficient to transition them from shelters to housing," he said.

The legislation received the unanimous support of the House committee and moves to the full House for its consideration. The bill seeks $7 million in one-time funding for shelters for specific populations of people experiencing homelessness and $2.5 million for services, Gibson said.

Weber County Commissioner James Ebert said HB436 has the potential to help St. Anne's - Lantern House in Ogden to replicate its data-driven approach in northern Utah such as Davis and Box Elder counties, possibly in other parts of the state.

"Come on up. We'll show you what we have at the Lantern House. We have on-site behavioral health. We have on-site physical health. We look at this as maybe being able to move outside of our region. What we hope is, this will move forward and we'll become a statewide project," Ebert said.

Pete Henderson, owner of the Rio Grande Cafe, spoke in favor of the bill but said no funding should be appropriated to the Road Home's shelter.

"My business was closed by police activity, criminal activity," Henderson said, referring to the disturbance Saturday night along Rio Grande Street.

"It was essentially a crime scene. My entire neighborhood, for two blocks around my business, people were kept out by more than 100 police cars."

The Road Home, he said, "has destroyed the neighborhood. I'm one of the very few remaining businesses there."

Community advocate Pamela Atkinson told the committee that a criminal element is known to prey on people who receive homeless services.

"Please know the victim (of the officer-involved shooting) was not from the shelter," she said.

Matthew Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, which houses, shelters and provides case management to homeless individuals and families, also supports Gibson's bill.

"I think Mr. Henderson's comments reflect frustration from some of the businesses in this area. The Rio Grande corridor is, by any reasonable perspective, doing more than its fair share of shouldering the thousands of people who are turning to our shelter in need of a place to go. We think we can improve this model. This important piece of legislation and the appropriation that comes with it, is an important step forward," he said.

While more than 1,000 people may stay in the Road Home's shelters tonight, there can be as many as 1,600 people who are currently in housing as a result of the Road Home programs," he said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com